Wednesday, February 25, 2015

From My Shelves - As Time Goes By

("From My Shelves" is an occasional series of posts where I discuss personal favorites from my personal collection)

As Time Goes By (TV series) - A young soldier and nurse fall in love in England in the '50's just before his unit is shipped to Korea.  They don't see each other for decades when he is writing a book and she is running the secretarial service that he hires to help with the project.  They quickly re-discover their shared history and re-build a relationship in the autumn of their lives.

This is one of the boatload of English comedies (Britcoms) that have come to America over the last 40 years.  This one stands out because of it's late life romance story line and stellar cast.  Judi Dench leads the cast as Jean Hardcastle with veteran English actor Geoffrey Palmer as the lost love of her life, Lionel.  The supporting cast (which is quite small, there's only a handful of regulars) is stellar as well.  One of the things we enjoy the most of the show (which I and Lady Phlipside started watching long before we hit the same age as Jean and Lionel) is that they portray the love lives of older folks both respectfully and honestly.

Lionel is a prickly older man who was married, unhappily, years ago.  Since then he has lived as a bachelor and is accustomed to having things just the way he wants.  Suddenly he finds himself in a household dominated by women (Jean and her daughter Judy [Moira Booker] and family friend Sandy [Jenny Funnell]).  The stories are funny and warm and romantic.  Along the way they also touch on some very serious and delicate topics with the same respect and honesty.

"As Time Goes By" ran from 1995 -2002 and the entire series is available on disc.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Movie Review - Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe? (1966) - A middle aged couple, George (Richard Burton) and Martha (Elizabeth Taylor), have a relationship based on verbal abuse, alcohol and broken dreams.  Once upon a time he was an up and coming history professor and she was the beautiful daughter of the college president.  Today they are vicious antagonists hiding behind the thinnest veneer of civility.  Into the grinder of that relationship come the new man in the Math department, Nick (George Segal) and his mousy wife, Honey (Sandy Dennis).  By the light of dawn all of them will find some of their most personal secrets laid bare.

Not an evening of light entertainment, for the characters or the viewers.  This is intense, character driven movie magic as Burton and Taylor take the characters from the award winning Broadway play (by Edward Albee) and explode them on the big screen.  The movie would be nominated in every single category at the Academy Awards (only one other movie managed that by 1966).  Out of the thirteen nominations it would win five, including for both Taylor and Dennis.  Taylor was at the height of her fame and beauty but agreed to put on thirty pounds for the role.  It's also an interesting side note that both acting couples were married in real life as well.

While it's not fluffy, light entertainment it is stunning at at times wryly funny.  Albee's dialogue comes at machine gun pace with bitter witticisms and a level of obscenity that was stunning at the time.  It's still pretty impressive.  In the hands of a cast of this quality the movie simply roars through your consciousness.  No topic and no person is sacrosanct.  It is simply brilliant.

This was another pivotal movie in pulling Hollywood free of the Production Code era.  It was originally believed to be so obscene that it could never be made into a movie.  Various self appointed censorship groups were outraged but Warner Brothers plowed ahead.  This movie, along with Antonioni's "Blow Up" would be the impetus to create the current rating system (which is an abomination but that's another story for another day).

A great script (adapted by Ernest Lehman) in the hands of brilliant young director (Mike Nichols debut) with a stellar cast creates a claustrophobic, intense film classic.

Rating - ***** Highest Recommendation

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Book Review - 18

18 - Collated by Belinda Hamilton (2014) - In 1996 a group of writers got together for mutual support and discussion (as writers are wont to do).  Out of that grew a group called Vision Writers.  The group specializes in speculative fiction, science fiction and fantasy, based in Queensland,
Australia.  This book is a celebration of their 18 years of creative work together, featuring what they believe is their best emerging talent.  The book is a collection of short stories that have a single idea in common.  The number 18 has a pivotal role in each story.  Those stories range widely.  Here's the collection's summation of itself:
Featuring cave crocodiles and spell absorbing beards, a séance with soul, a night in a gypsy caravan to make all your wishes come true and a journey through hell that will make you swear to be good. Come with us to rebuild the world clock, face the dragon queen and hide from the thing under the bed. Assuming you can escape the floating car...
It's all of that and more.  I am a fan (and sometime author) of short stories, so I'm always on the lookout for a new collection to add to my library.  I was thrilled at the quality of the stories here.  Finding an interesting story that weaves around the number 18 must have been a fun challenge for the writers and they took a wide variety of paths.  Some were frightening and some funny (a magic absorbing BEARD?!!??!!  Love it).  There was not a single story in this anthology that won't re-pay the reader for the time it takes to read it.  I'm not sure I can offer a better endorsement of a short story collection.

I do have one small complaint about the volume.  13 stories?  In a volume called "18"?  Really?  I'm happy if they just didn't have 18 quality stories for the collection.  I'll take quality over quantity any time.

But really.  :)

A really quality collection of speculative fiction/science fiction/fantasy short stories from up and coming authors.  Oh yes, and it's a free e-book.  How can you resist?

Kudos to the authors in the collection (with links when I could find them.  If the others would like links added all they have to do is contact me):

Melanie Bird
S. Elliot Brandis
Laura Brodnik
Daniel Ferguson
Kristen Isbexter
Talitha Kalago
Christopher Kneipp
Megann Laverick
Kenneth Mugi
Kirstie Olley
Tony Owns
Allan Walsh
S. Walsh

Rating - **** Recommended

Monday, February 16, 2015

Movie Review - The Monuments Men

The Monuments Men (2014) - The story of members of the Allied forces in World War II tasked with finding and saving art work and buildings in the midst of the war.  They also had to track down and return the thousands of pieces of art stolen by Nazi forces.

Every once in a while I run into a movie that I wish could have tried to be just a little bit more.  There's a lot going for this movie.  Great historical story of the real life Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, a great cast (George Clooney, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett and veteran character actor Bob Balaban, among others) and a wonderful look (the cinematography is really outstanding).  The problem is really in the script.  There's never a feeling of a continuous story line.  It's more of a long series of loosely connected sketches.  The characters feel shallow, not giving this great cast much to work with at any point.  There's very little passion, just a group of actors walking through a thread bare script, trying to make something out of very little.

Another problem with the script is its overall tone.  Clooney, who produced, wrote and directed the movie, went for a breezy, light comedy approach to the story.  So immediately you lose any sense of the danger or challenge of the work these people (the real life "Monuments Men" were actually men and women) were trying to do.  That immediately sacrificed a lot of the meat of the story.

My last issue with the script is its cavalier approach to the history of the unit.  While admitting that in making a story work on the big screen means moving some of the actual history around.  I'm fine with that.  In this script Clooney basically ejects most of the history right over the side.  The story becomes a very American centered one, despite the fact that the British lead the way in this kind of work and the actual unit drew from countries all over Europe.  There is a British member and a French one.  Two members get killed.  Care to guess which two?  While virtually everything in the movie did happen, the approach to the story has a strong resemblance to a game of pick up sticks.  It's just a mish-mash and the feel of the story suffers for it.

Is it a fun way to spend a couple hours?  Sure.  Is it a movie you should go out of your way to watch?  Not really.

Call it a very low level 3 star rating.

Rating - *** Worth A Look

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Best of the Web - Damn You Autocorrect!

(Best of the Web is an occasional series of posts that spotlight what I believe is the Internet living up to its highest potential)

Damn You Autocorrect - I haven't spent a lot time focusing on classic business model web sites in this series.  The reality is that there is NO other site on the web that so regularly reduces me to helpless, gasping laughter.  This is actually a family of websites that focus on failures in the land of our daily technology.  "Damn You Autocorrect" is based on odd and hysterical messages that are created when the autocorrect function on our smart phones change words in our messages.  Add in related sites like "Parent Texts" (seriously parents, what is wrong with you?), "Wrong # Texts" (we should all pay a little more attention to whom we are sending some of our texts) and "Damn Funny Texts" among others.

Either the world is filled with people who pay no attention to what appears on their screen before they hit send or they have a staff of truly brilliant writers.  I am totally divided on which camp I fall into but in the end I don't really care.  This stuff is hysterically funny.  We are talking about a great way to suddenly waste an hour at work, all the while laughing maniacally so that all your co-workers begin to stare at you.

The Internet doesn't need to be serious all the time.  It's great when it can be seriously funny.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Movie Review - The Good Girl

The Good Girl (2002) - A small town Texas woman (Jennifer Aniston) is bored with her life.  Bored with her well meaning but ineffectual, stoner husband (John C. Reilly).  Bored with her pointless job in a local discount store.  All that boredom leads to her having an affair with a young coworker (Jake Gyllenhaal) who is obsessed with Holden Caulfield from the novel "The Catcher in the Rye".

I honestly don't know what to do with this movie.  There's plenty to like about it.  First and foremost, the work of Aniston.  This is not her usual vacuous rom/com character.  She plays the beaten down spirit of Justine beautifully.  It's not that her life is bad, it's just not much of anything.  Justine has never had the imagination to envision anything other than the life she has.  She just knows that she wishes it were more.

I know exactly how she feels.

Reilly is not bad as her husband Phil.  He truly is a non-entity until the moment of betrayal.  The moment that forces many of them out of their comfortable ruts.  Tim Blake Nelson is...interesting as Phil's best friend and fellow stoner Bubba (although Nelson is the least likely looking Bubba I have ever seen).  The problem is that neither director nor actor seem to have any idea quite how to play the character.  Which is rough since he holds a rather pivotal moment in the movie in his hands.  A moment that fell completely and utterly flat because of that.

Jake Gyllenhaal did nothing for me as Holden/Tom.  He's physically attractive enough to be believable as the object of a fling but the character is so artificial and one dimensional I found it hard to believe that Justine couldn't find someone, ANYONE, more interesting to meet at the local "no tell motel".

It's funny looking at how the movie is described in various places.  The Wikipedia entry for it calls it a "black comedy", while Netflix's description is : "Feeling trapped in her marriage, "good girl" Justine begins an affair with Holden, a younger co-worker who's obsessed with The Catcher in the Rye. But it doesn't take long for Holden's passion to bloom into a poisonous obsession."  Makes it sound like an intense, psychological thriller, right?

It's neither of the above.  It lacks any sense of morbid humor or elements of farce to do that.  The movie is everything OTHER than intense.  The tempo is slow and lacks any sense of excitement.

Which is actually one of the best parts of the movie.  This is story of people living life in slow motion so it shouldn't be fast paced, it shouldn't be intense.  It meanders, without any seeming direction or destination.

Just like Justine's life.

So yes, I don't quite know what to do with this movie.  I actually dozed off during the final 15 minutes and had to go back to see the ending.  But I wanted to see it.  And that's something.  Jennifer Aniston shows that she's got more range than her critics give her credit for and the story is interesting.  In a sad, plodding, meandering kind of way.  Along the way it has gotten some sterling reviews.  I have no idea what movie they watched.

Rating - *** Worth A Look

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Book Review - The Man Who Knew Too Much

The Man Who Knew Too Much - G.K. Chesterton (1922) - A collection of thirteen mystery stories centering mostly on Horne Fisher, the "Man" of the title (four of the stories feature other people).  Fisher's problem is that he knows too many people and has either discovered, or been told, too many things.  He knows the secrets of the society in which he lives but can not tell those secrets because they may damage the status quo and the people he knows that support it.  The result is that he is a humorless, bitter man who sees the truth but can not make it serve justice.

If you're a movie buff, here's another one where you think you will know the story (just like "The 39 Steps").  Once again Alfred Hitchcock will have led you down a false trail.  The movie (a classic) has virtually nothing to do with the book.  It's surprising how very modern in tone these stories are despite being almost a century old.  Our protagonist is very much in the modern "anti-hero" mold.  He doesn't pursue truth with any great vigor and prefers the comfortable rut of a corrupt system to the disorderly results of trying to change it.  In the end Fisher will even rise to the defense of the system for which he has shown such disillusion.  On the whole he is a rather disagreeable character.

In fact, he goes so far in a couple places to let fly with some nasty anti-Semitic comments.  It's just this sort of thing that sets off some Chesterton critics.  There has been some long standing controversy about Chesterton and anti-Semitism.  In the end there are two items I think worth noting.  First, that Chesterton did a great deal of work in supporting the creation of a Jewish homeland and argued vehemently against the concept of racial superiority as it was propounded by the Nazis.  At the same time there was a strong streak of anti-Semitism in English (and all European) culture at the time.  He undoubtedly bore some trace of it and his characters were honest representations of the class of people he saw in daily life.  Chesterton fans take great exception to the concept that the author was an anti-Jewish bigot.

Chesterton is certainly a fascinating character in his own right.  Not only did he write these mystery stories but also the classic "Father Brown Mysteries".  His writings explaining Christian belief remain classics as well ("Orthodoxy" and "The Everlasting Man", as examples).  A High Church Anglican he eventually became a Roman Catholic.  A large man (6'4" and 284 pounds) he was also a beloved speaker on the BBC, delivering some 40 talks a year for over the last four years of his life.

Wonderfully written and a fascinating read.

Rating - **** Recommended

Monday, February 2, 2015

Movie Review - Blow Up

Blow Up (1966) - An arrogant fashion photographer(David Hemmings) suddenly discovers that some photos he'd taken while walking in the park may contain evidence of murder.  As he tries to figure out what's going on he must deal with a mystery woman (Vanessa Redgrave) who isn't telling him everything.

I've been watching this series of related movies backwards - starting with Coppola's "The Conversation", then DePalma's "Blow Out" and finally the original.  Of the three, this is far and away the most daring.  My first impulse was that it was going to be terribly dated.  The scene for the story is the mod fashion world of Sixties London.  But very quickly Antonioni sweeps you up into the story.  Which is a little surprising in itself since the main character, the fashion photographer, is an utterly unlikeable person.  He is narcissistic and a misogynist.  He has no real interest in the women in his life, except as objects in his photographs or as sexual conquests.  The essence of his life is that he is always in control.  Like any good rabbit hole the farther down it he pursues the question of the apparent murder, the farther out of his control the whole thing becomes.

The whole thing winds up in an ending that is absolutely perfect for the story and utterly un-Hollywood.  It surprised me and pleased me.

This was Michealangelo Antonioni's first film in English.  The soundtrack, provided by Jazz great Herbie Hancock, is spectacular and unique.  The music only occurs when music might occur in real life (when the radio is on, for example).  The overall effect is stunning.  It's unsurprising that the movie took the Grand Prix at Cannes.

That's not it's only claim to fame.  Hollywood was still working under the lumbering burden of the outdated Production Code when this movie was made.  With some sexually explicit scenes (yes, pretty tame by today's standards) there was no way that it would pass the official censors.  But the Production Code only applied to the major studios that had signed on.  "Blow-Up" was produced under a smaller studio's name and therefore slid through.  When the acclaim rolled in, followed by great ticket sales, the Production Code was finally, and gloriously, dead.  The movie should hold a special place in movie history just for that accomplishment.

Rating - ***** Highest Recommendation 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

From My Shelves - Little Feat "Ain't Had Enough Fun"

(From My Shelves is an occasional series of posts that takes a look at some of my personal favorites in my collections of music, movies and books.)

Little Feat - "Ain't Had Enough Fun" (1995) - Is Little Feat the best band to never have a hit single?  Certainly an arguable point.  If you talk to a lot of musicians going back to the '70s they will tell just how good this band has been.  Formed in L.A. in 1969 by keyboardist Bill Payne and singer/songwriter/guitarist Lowell George they have cranked out great music through decades and changes in the lineup.

The history of the band takes many twists and turns.  It begins with George being fired from Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention.  Why he was fired is open to a certain amount of discussion.  Musically the band has wandered through rock, funk, country, blues, R&B, jazz fusion and more.  The result is one of the more individual sounds over the years.  The band's name is supposed to be a tribute to George's small feet.  The spelling is a tribute to the Beatles.

This album is from the post-Lowell George era (George died in 1979) and is the first album where Shaun Murphy as a lead singer.  She had done some singing with the band on several previous albums and had been a member of the touring group with Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band.  After five albums she would leave the band in 2009.

This was one of the hundreds of CDs that rolled across my desk as Music Director at my last radio station.  Most of those discs ended up in the trash (I'd salvage the jewel cases because we were constantly breaking them), a small number would go to the library because we had played them on some kind of regular basis.  There was an even smaller universe of music that was wrong for the station but too good to throw out.  This was one I snagged because I enjoyed it so much.  Years later it continues to be a regular favorite record to just jam to as I was working around the house.

Little Feat still plays the occasional gig (they show some shows in Jamaica in March) but several members of the band are working steadily.  This includes founding member Bill Payne, who now plays with Leftover Salmon and guitarists Paul Berrere and Fred Tackett just played (as the Paul and Fred Acoustic Duo) with 10,000 Maniacs, January 24!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Movie Review - The Days of Wine and Roses

Days of Wine and Roses (1962) - A public relations man (Jack Lemmon) falls in love with the secretary of a client (Lee Remick).  His alcoholism becomes their alcoholism and their lives spin out of control.  Nominated for five Oscars (including both Best Actor and Actress) wining once for the Henry Mancini score.

Most of us associate Jack Lemmon with lighter comedy roles so this one is a change of pace.  He was a favorite of director Billy Wilder, working on films like "Some Like It Hot", "The Apartment" and "The Front Page".  Like a lot of great comic actors he brings emotional depth to his more serious roles.  That's a great asset in a film that takes on a subject that Hollywood generally avoided, alcoholism  at home.  In fact, the Warner Bros. studio had serious reservations about the ending.  The cast and crew were so concerned that the ending would be changed they filmed the movie in order (standard procedure would have them do all the scenes on a certain set at the same time as a time and cost saving measure) and Jack Lemmon left the country immediately after the last shot was completed so he couldn't be called back for a re-shoot.

The advertising tag line for the movie was "This, in its own terrifying way, is a love story."

"Days of Wine and Roses" offers a variety of discordant aspects in the film.  The gentle, smooth sound of Mancini's score, especially the theme song against the deepening anguish of the story line create a perfect environment for the characters.  Lemmon and Remick create characters that you can't help but like even as you watch them destroy themselves.  The movie begins with a smooth, polished feel but director Blake Edwards lets the aesthetic of the movie to shift as their lives descend into madness.

Not a light time at the movies but an amazing movie.

Rating - **** Recommended